The Founders understood self-government in the twofold sense of political self-government, in which we govern ourselves as a political community, and of moral self-government, according to which each individual is responsible for governing himself. They believed that the success of the former required a flourishing of the latter. Individuals could not govern themselves as a body politic unless they were each first capable  of governing themselves as individuals, families, and communities. The Founders were deeply concerned not only with the structures of limited constitutional government but also with the public virtues and civic habits needed to maintain the capacity for political self-government. This constant challenge is the reason that American constitutionalism was from the beginning, and will always remain, an experiment.

The purpose of limiting government, assuring rights, and guaranteeing the consent of the governed is to protect a vast realm of human freedom. That freedom creates a great space for the primary institutions of civil society—family, school, church, and private associations—to flourish, forming the habits and virtues required for liberty. The American Founders also knew that it was through these institutions, through the enjoyment of family, faith, and community life, that man secured, as it says in the Constitutions, "the blessings of liberty"—that liberty which is truly a blessing. Moral self-government both precedes and completes political self-government, and thus political freedom. It is in this sense that the primary as well as the culminating first principle of American liberty is self-government.

—Excerpted from We Still Hold These Truths by Matthew Spalding

Below you'll find a list of Hillsdale's best resources from Imprimis, the Kirby Center's lectures, and the College's faculty; key primary sources from The U.S. Constitution: A Reader; a selection of books for further reading; and a timeline of critical events in American history.

 

Latest Videos

 


Fundamental Writings and Videos  |  Primary Sources  |  Further Reading  |  Culture and Religion in History

 

FUNDAMENTAL WRITINGS AND VIDEOS

 

Recasting the Case for Religious Liberty arrow
Hadley Arkes  |  February 20, 2014  |  Lecture
 

Benjamin Franklin, Ronald Reagan, and the Renewal of American Civil Society arrow
Terrence O. Moore  |  January 31, 2013  |  Lecture

Washington, D.C., Monuments and Memorials, Old and New arrow
Michael Lewis  |  March 2, 2012  |  Lecture

Wimps and Barbarians: The Sons of Murphy Brown
Terrence O. Moore  |  January 8, 2004  |  Claremont Review of Books

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

 

Aristotle

Nichomachean Ethics

Aristotle

Written in the tradition of Aristotle's teacher, Plato—and of Plato's teacher, Socrates—the Nicomachean Ethics addresses the question, "What is the best life for man?" An extended reflection on virtue, happiness, and friendship, it helped to inform the moral and political thought of America's Founders. There are echoes of it, for instance, in President George Washington's First Inaugural Address, when he states "that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness."

Thomas Jefferson

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson asked to be remembered on his tombstone as author of the Declaration of Independence, father of the University of Virginia, and author of this law. Long delayed because of the contentiousness of the subject and the powerful interests arrayed against it, the Virginia Statute was drafted in 1777, introduced as a bill in the 1779 legislative session, and adopted in 1786. Eventually the laws of all thirteen original states would prohibit an established church and guarantee religious liberty to all.

George Washington

Letter to the Hebrew Congregation

George Washington

The Constitution of 1787 said little directly about religion, with the notable exception of a ban on religious tests as a requirement for federal office. When Washington was elected president, the Bill of Rights had not yet been adopted. Despite this, in his response to a congratulatory note sent to him by a group of Jewish Americans, President Washington characterized religious liberty not as a gift of government or a matter of toleration, but as a natural right possessed by every human being.

George Washington

Farewell Address

George Washington

George Washington had first prepared a farewell address to be delivered in 1792, upon the colcusion of his first term as president. Having been convinced to stand for a second term, he was unanimously re-elected. When he finally issued this address in 1796, it was his last public work. After nearly forty-five years of service, he retired to Mount Vernon.

Thomas Jefferson

Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association

Thomas Jefferson

The Danbury Baptist Association, aware of Jefferson's earlier role in overturning the Anglican establishment in Virginia, expressed hope that as president he might help liberate them from the religious constraints in Connecticut. Jefferson's response, in which he employs the famous "wall of separation between church and state" metaphor, is not a demand for the separation of religion and politics; rather, it addresses the principle of federalism. As president, Jefferson is unable to interfere in this state issue. Likewise, Congress is prohibited from doing so by the First Amendment's religion clauses. The citizens of Connecticut must remedy their situation by amending their state constitution and statutes—as eventually they did.

John Dewey

Liberalism and Social Action

John Dewey

As a leading Progressive scholar from the 1880s onward, Dewey, who taught mainly at Columbia University, devoted much of his life to redefining the idea of education. His thought was influenced by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, and central to it was a denial of objective truth and an embrace of historicism and moral relativism. As such he was critical of the American founding.

Frank Goodnow

The American Conception of Liberty

Frank Goodnow

Progressive political science was based on the assumption that society could be organized in such a way that social ills would disappear. Goodnow, president of Johns Hopkins University and the first president of the American Political Science Association, helped pioneer the idea that separating politics from administration was the key to progress. In this speech, given at Brown University, he addresses the need to move beyond the ideas of the Founders.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Remarks at the University of Michigan

Lyndon B. Johnson

In this commencement address, President Johnson introduces his Progressive idea of a "Great Society."

Ronald Reagan

First Inaugural Address

Ronald Reagan

Breaking with historical precedent, Reagan's first inauguration was held on the Capitol's West Front, allowing him to refer in his speech to the presidential memorials and to Arlington National Cemetery in the distance. The first post-New Deal president to challenge the principles of the New Deal, Reagan presents his opposition in terms of reviving the idea of consent of the governed.

 

FURTHER READING

 

We hold these truths Humility Unlikely Biography Americas Greatest  Tolkiens Sanctifying Myth Understanding Middle Earth

We Still Hold These Truths

Matthew Spalding

Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue

David J. Bobb

J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth

Bradley J. Birzer

Planet Narnia Seven Heavens Imagination

   

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis

Michael Ward

   

 

CULTURE AND RELIGION IN HISTORY

 

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

Poor Richard's Almanack
1732

Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard’s Almanack, which included weather forecasts, household tips, puzzles, and maxims and was the most popular publication in the colonies until the publication of Common Sense in 1776.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
1741

Jonathan Edwards’ fiery sermon, in which he paints a vivid description of hell, damnation, and the urgent need for salvation through Christ, is typical of the Great Awakening movement in the colonies during the 1730s and 1740s.

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

The Bill of Rights
1791

The Bill of Rights was formally ratified by three-quarters of the states on over two years after it had first been proposed in 1789. This marked the first successful use of the Constitution’s Amendment process. 

Lewis and Clark Expedition
1804

Following the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the region along with a company of 45 others. The expedition reached the Pacific coast and returned to Missouri. Their reports on the vast territory encouraged westward expansion over the following decades.

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

Democracy in America
1835

Alexis de Tocqueville directed this study of American politics, religion, economics, and culture to a French, mainly aristocratic, audience in order to increase support for and acceptance of democracy. It remains a leading foreign commentary on America.

Lyceum Address
1838

A young Abraham Lincoln discussed the danger slavery posed to the Union, urging his listeners to revere the rule of law so that the Constitution would become the “political religion” of all Americans.

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

Oregon Trail
1839

In one of the largest peacetime migrations in history, around 1,000 people journeyed from Missouri to Oregon Country. The Oregon Trail became the most heavily traveled route for westward-bound settlers until the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

Homestead Act
1862

The Homestead Act provided for the settlement of the Western territories by independent farmers. It led to the transfer of hundreds of millions of acres of federal land into private hands.

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

14th Amendment
1868

Passed in the wake of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment defined American citizenship (overruling Dred Scott v. Sandford in the process), prohibited state governments from depriving their citizens of “life, liberty, and property” without due process of law, and required all states to provide their citizens with “equal protection” of the laws.

Transcontinental Railroad
1869

The first transcontinental railroad was completed when the Union Pacific tracks joined the Central Pacific Railroad tracks in Promontory, Utah. The completion of the railroad connected the Western states to the rest of the Union, revolutionizing trade, transportation, and communication between the two coasts.

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
1884

Mark Twain’s iconic American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tackled the biggest issues of the day under the veil of comedy and through a narrator who speaks in the vernacular. The book has remained immensely popular among Americans.

Wright Brothers Conduct First Flight
1903

After building several models and test gliders, Orville and Wilbur Wright finally built their own 700-pound aircraft known as the Flyer. In 1903, Orville successfully flew the Flyer for a total of 12 seconds, the first successful piloted flight in history.

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

RMS Titanic Sinks
1912

The luxury passenger liner RMS Titanic sank on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg. Of the roughly 2,200 passengers on board, 1,514 died in the debacle. The tragedy captured the attention of the world, as the victims included some of the world’s wealthiest people as well as large numbers of poor emigrants.

Rosa Parks Arrested
1955

When ordered to give up her seat for a white passenger, Rosa Parks refused and was arrested for violating a Montgomery, Alabama, city ordinance mandating segregation. Parks’ case was supported by several civil rights leaders, who began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery bus segregation laws violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Constitution Reader Constitution Reader

"I Have A Dream" Speech
1963

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the most famous speech of the American civil rights movement from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Civil Rights Act
1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial and gender discrimination by prohibiting segregation in schools, by employers, and by those companies and institutions that serve as “public accommodations,” such as hotels and restaurants.

Constitution Reader  

Apollo 11 Moon Landing
1969

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, astronauts aboard the Apollo 11, safely landed on the moon and spent two-and-a-half hours exploring the lunar surface. The event was immortalized by Neil Armstrong’s words as he stepped onto the moon: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”